Brian Riddick first learned of the Noble Network of Charter Schools in 2013, when he worked at a therapeutic day school near Washington, D.C. He was used to working with “a lot of students of privilege” and was ready for a change.
More than anything, he wanted to work with low-income black students, especially black males like himself. And he was drawn to Noble’s mission of preparing low-income students for college.
“I wanted to work with kids who needed it most,” says Riddick, who teaches English at the Butler campus in Pullman on the Far Southeast Side.
As Noble expands and wins national accolades, thousands of job applications pour in each year to what’s become a well-oiled hiring operation. Teachers are attracted to the network’s mission, the promise of autonomy in the classroom and a consistent approach to student discipline that allows for more teaching without behavioral distractions.
There is also a seductive courting process, which many compare to that of the corporate world. Teachers say it happens fast — sometimes they hear from principals within hours of applying. Noble flies in top candidates to teach demonstration lessons. And if more than one principal wants the same candidate, Noble’s founder and superintendent, Michael Milkie, personally calls the applicant to lay out the offers.
All of this creates a sense of selectivity among the 7 percent of teacher applicants who get hired.
Yet once they’re inside, many admit to feeling conflicted about some of the attributes that drew them to the charter network. In interviews with Catalyst, more than a dozen current and former Noble teachers expressed frustration with the strict discipline and the expectation that teachers put in long work days. Many asked not to be named, fearing for their job security.
Few teachers could imagine doing this work and raising a family at the same time. But they also know they are easy to replace. As one former teacher put it, there is a long line of “young, doe-eyed people” eager to come and do the work.
To stay or not to stay?
An internal report based on exit interviews with departing staff last year — obtained from Noble through an open records request — confirms many of these sentiments. The No. 1 reason employees cited for leaving was what they considered to be unreasonable job expectations.
“If we expect teachers to be martyrs forever, we’ll never retain talent,” one former Noble teacher told Catalyst.
Despite the workload, many are reluctant to quit before hitting the four-year mark. That’s because most new teachers are asked to lead so-called “advisories,” which provide a home base for students from the day they arrive to the day they leave. The advisor-advisee relationship can become emotional, which makes it hard for teachers to leave before their students graduate.
In addition, some bonuses are tied to advisories, although none of the teachers interviewed said the extra pay factored into their decisions to stay.
Overall, Noble does a better job of keeping its teachers than other charter schools in Chicago. An analysis of state data on certified teachers — and most teachers at charter schools are certified — shows an annual retention rate that has averaged 75 percent in recent years across the Noble network. (The state does not report data by campus.)
In comparison, the average retention rate for other Chicago charter schools is 63 percent. At district-run schools, the retention rate is around 79 percent at the same school, and 83 percent when in-district transfers are included.
Noble officials say that more established campuses, such as the original school on Noble Street, have higher retention rates. That campus “is where we’re heading,” says James Troupis, a former Noble principal who now heads the network’s talent office.
Because the reasons for turnover can be unique to each campus, Noble leaders sat down last year with principals to go over what their departing staff members said. Troupis also ran a workshop for all administrators on how to handle criticism. “For us to get better as an organization, we have to be willing to accept and want feedback,” he says.
And some principals have learned their own lessons about not pushing their staff to work unnecessarily long hours. Vince Gay, the principal at the Baker campus, says that when he came to Noble about seven years ago as assistant principal of the UIC campus, he was surrounded by other single, 20-somethings. “We were modeling bad behavior,” he recalls. “We would routinely be at school until 8 or 9 p.m.”
Now that he’s a father and principal, he tells his staff that he has to leave at 5 p.m. each day to pick up his son at daycare. He doesn’t pay much attention to when teachers leave as long as their work gets done. And this year he made it a rule not to send emails to staffers after 8 p.m. or on weekends. “We needed to create structures” to disconnect, he says.
Compensation a big problem
Data from Noble’s exit interviews show that 39 percent of departing staff did not believe they were compensated appropriately.
One of the biggest complaints that Catalyst heard from current and former teachers, and especially from women, was the lack of a clear salary structure.
The concerns are compounded because teachers can easily search public databases to see that their counterparts at district-run schools earn much more.
See how Noble and CPS salaries compare
On average, full-time Noble teachers make about $52,000 per year in salaries, $5,500 in performance bonuses and $2,000 in stipends for taking on extra responsibilities. According to a Catalyst analysis of data obtained from Noble through a public records request, salaries for male and female teachers are comparable. At district-run schools, teachers make about $74,000 on average, state data show. Only two teachers at Noble top $74,000 in salary alone.
Noble leaders say they would increase salaries if they got more financial support from CPS for facilities.
Base pay at Noble is on par with that of other charter schools in the city, according to state data on certified teachers from 2015. The network pays more than some other large charter school networks, such as Chicago International Charter School and LEARN, but less than the UNO Charter School Network and the University of Chicago Charter Schools.
Oliver Sicat, a former principal at the UIC campus, acknowledges that the system can be discomfiting. The onus is on principals, he says, to have tough conversations with their staff about why they pay some teachers more than others.
“I’d rather be able to differentiate my pay to attract people from all different sectors and reward people for [talent] than not be able to,” he says.
Sicat’s successor, Tressie Dust McDonough, previously taught at the Pritzker campus and knows it can be tough for staff to advocate for themselves.
So in her position as principal at UIC, she determines raises from spreadsheets she builds for each teacher based on their content area, years of experience, performance and what they would earn at a district-run school.
“I don’t think people should have to negotiate,” she says.
Clear salary structures can help with retention, says Rob Heise, a former UNO teacher who helped unionize that network. He knows this from experience.
At his former charter school network, which is the city’s third-largest, just 39 percent of teachers stayed on the job between 2013 and 2014, according to state records. But last year, after the staff unionized and obtained a labor contract, the retention rate shot up to 77 percent.
“The difference between the year before we went union and the year after was stability,” says Heise. “The whole idea behind it was teachers finding a place where they could spend the next 15, 20 years of their careers as teachers.”
Most Noble teachers who talked with Catalyst were not interested in going union. Many worried about having to negotiate on behalf of teachers dealing with a different set of problems at lower-performing campuses.
But even teachers who are frustrated with their own pay take a nuanced view of the issues. One teacher who has been with Noble for more than four years says she’s still building the courage to ask for her first raise outside of cost-of-living increases.
Yet she admits that she has never worked at a school where she’s allowed to order as many books as she wants for her students — books that students are allowed to keep at the end of the year.
“Sometimes I want to demonize Noble. But the day-to- day in the classroom is better [than elsewhere],” she says. “There’s 100 percent autonomy for me as a teacher. No one is telling me what to teach or not teach, as long as I show growth [on the ACT].”
Troupis describes this as the “balance of salaries versus services.” College visits, well-stocked supply rooms and a social worker in every building are prized resources, but they do cost money.
This school year, Noble teachers had one benefit that CPS teachers did not: an assurance of job security. While the cash-strapped district threatened layoffs for months, Noble said it did not intend to let any teachers go, even if CPS cuts appropriations to charters.
Although few Noble teachers can imagine a long-term career in a Noble classroom, many said they value the network’s leadership development practices. And if Noble continues to expand, so too will the opportunities for promotion from within.
“The managerial track is fast,” says one former teacher who shifted into an administrative role after two years. “If you do a good job, you can move up.”
State data show that about one of every 10 certified Noble teachers who left the classroom between 2014 and 2015 stayed at the charter network in a different position, typically in management.
It’s not just that Noble principals encourage good teachers to move up. Beyond that, some principals deliberately help teachers build the skills they need — even if it means losing them to another campus.
Ellen Metz, principal at the original Noble Street campus, says she can’t promote too many of her teachers without becoming a top-heavy school. But she’s created grade-level teams of teacher leaders who meet monthly and weigh in on decision-making at the campus.
“If somebody explains to me: ‘Hey Ellen, I want to come out of the classroom, I actually want to go lead,’ then we might frame our discussions … a little bit differently, where I’m making sure that they feel like they’re getting practice or reps at what they need,” says Metz, who once taught at the original campus.
Thirteen of the network’s 16 principals once worked inside Noble as classroom teachers or lower-level administrators.
Most teachers can easily name several former colleagues or supervisors who moved up within the network — or out to lead school organizations elsewhere.
There’s the former teacher who is now principal of a district-run elementary school in Logan Square, and one who opened a charter school in Denver. The director of Noble’s teacher-training program, which is geared toward the network’s graduates, once worked inside a Noble campus as a director of curriculum and instruction and later as a principal. Sicat, the former UIC campus principal, went on to become the chief portfolio officer for CPS before setting off for Los Angeles to launch his own charter network.
And many who leave can see themselves returning to the charter network one day — perhaps in a leadership role. According to the internal report on exit interviews, more than 70 percent of departing staff said they would be interested in “future opportunities with Noble.”
“This is a part of who we are,” Troupis says. “We want people to take what they’ve learned at Noble and make a huge impact elsewhere. And we know that a lot of people are going off and will boomerang back to us in some capacity.”
—Kalyn Belsha contributed to this report